October 17, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Wangari Mathai,
winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and Coordinator,
The Green Belt Movement: The increasingly contentious
debate about the impact of patenting of life forms and
genetic engineering is extremely important to all humanity.
This is especially true for developing countries, rich
in biological resources and the traditional practices
which have generated this diversity for centuries. It
is this resource, called "green gold", which
is now being explored and exploited by global transnational
Traders have appropriated other people's resources,
including human 'resources' and territories, as free
goods for centuries, usually by buying-off misinformed,
unsuspecting or corrupted nationals. Biotechnology and
patenting of life forms are now the new frontier for
conquest, and Africa ought to be wary because a history
of colonialism and exploitation is repeating itself.
Implications of patenting life forms
The original purpose of patenting and the laws governing
the regime were developed to apply to machinery and
industrial inventions. Justice now demands that new
laws be agreed, through a democratic and open process,
to address the new developments in biotechnology. This
is especially important when transnational corporations
seek to use this technology to justify their claim for
monopoly rights on living materials.
Corporations are trying to appropriate life through
the same rules which have governed the world of business
and profits in the past. Industry has in fact already
managed to gain private monopoly rights (patents) on
some living materials, by distorting the original concept
and intention of patenting - as life is obviously not
This distortion has been deliberately created by blurring
the meaning of invention so that corporations can obtain
private monopolies on mere 'discoveries' of biological
materials and their properties, such as umbilical chord
blood cells and basmati rice.
This issue is critical because patenting is being applied
to seeds which are the basis of societies' food systems.
Corporations claim that they can mix and match genetic
material through the new genetic engineering technology,
to make better seeds.
However, to recuperate their investments, they also
claim that they need to obtain a private monopoly right
(patent) on the genetic material which they use. In
fact this is to stop others from developing products
with the same characteristics, and it effectively blocks
the development of other options from the patented material.
Patenting of living material is also being called 'biopiracy'
because corporations get genetic material from the farmers
and local communities, who are constantly developing
new combinations and characteristics. This old tradition
has increased biodiversity, productivity and innovation
over the centuries, without using genetic engineering
technology or claiming private ownership of such resources,
which are considered a common heritage.
The idea that African farmers should have to buy seeds,
developed from their own biological materials, from
transnational corporations, because such companies have
given themselves the exclusive rights to those seeds,
is outrageous. The rights and the capacity of communities
to feed themselves would be completely undermined, if
industry managed to assert its self-given rights. In
the US, farmers are punished for re-using patented seeds.
Industry is trying to force farmers to buy seed each
season, which makes them totally dependent on the corporations
Until recently the corporations' ability to enforce
their self-given rights in Africa and other developing
countries was limited by many factors including distance,
the large number of farmers, and lack of legislation
in favor of corporate monopoly. It is precisely in order
to control the traditional freedom of farmers to develop,
use and exchange seeds, that the agrochemical industry
has now developed what has been dubbed the 'terminator
technology'. This genetically engineered technology
ensures that seed injected with the 'suicide gene' does
not germinate after harvesting. This means the farmers
will have to buy seed each season, and cannot develop
their own seed.
This the corporations themselves admit, through US
scientist Melvin Oliver, the primary 'inventor' of the
new patent-protecting 'terminator' technique: 'the need
was there to come up with a system that allowed you
to self-police your technology, other than trying to
put laws and legal barriers to farmers saving seeds,
and to try and stop foreign interests from stealing
Under these circumstances, if we thought that slavery
and colonialism were gross violations of human rights,
we have to wake up to what is awaiting us down the secretive
road of biopiracy, patenting of life and genetic engineering.
Genocide from hunger, such as we have not yet seen,
becomes a haunting possibility.
Creating food insecurity
This lethal use of genetic engineering biotechnology
threatens the food security of this and future generations.
It destroys the very basis of the livelihood systems
which our ancestors have developed for centuries, finely
adapting to the diverse ecosystems in which they have
evolved. The development and control of farmers' own
biodiversity is an inalienable right and the basis upon
which food security is achieved. What the transnational
corporations and their government allies are advocating
undermines, the life style, values and ethics of farming
communities. It is indeed a violation of their right
to food and to natural justice.
History has many records of crimes against humanity,
which were also justified by dominant commercial interests
and governments of the day. Despite protests from citizens,
social justice for the common good was eroded in favor
of private profits. Today, patenting of life forms and
the genetic engineering which it stimulates, is being
justified on the grounds that it will benefit society,
especially the poor, by providing better and more food
and medicine. But in fact, by monopolizing the 'raw'
biological materials, the development of other options
is deliberately blocked. Farmers therefore, become totally
dependent on the corporations for seeds. Market monopolies
create pricing structures which make biotech products
inaccessible to the poor, in whose name they are promoted.
In fact the poor cannot access these markets. Instead
they are persuaded, coerced and sometimes forced, to
grow cash crops like coffee, tea, cocoa, french beans
and flowers rather than growing food for household consumption.
They have to do this to generate the cash, to buy the
seeds and associated chemical inputs such as fertilizers,
pesticides and herbicides from the corporations. In
addition they have no control of the pricing of the
cash crops nor of the food they have to buy as a result.
They are at the mercy of the fluctuations of the commodity
markets, and so are their governments which get into
debt to buy the food they need to feed their people.
This distorted process has been engineered by the 'free'
trade ideologies, so that corporations can generate
their ever-growing profits, which cannot be made if
people feed themselves and control their local economies.
The process also ensures that international debts, incurred
by national governments so that they can buy commodities
from international markets, are serviced by local communities
which are thereby kept in perpetual debt bondage and
Why genetic engineering will not
feed the world
At present the transnational biotechnology industry
is aggressively persuading the resisting European consumers
that genetic engineering will feed the growing populations
in developing countries. It is now widely accepted that
food security for local communities means the capacity
to access, develop and exchange seeds and to produce
enough food for the households, only selling the surplus
to the market. Likewise, national food security means
the capacity for a country to produce enough seed and
food for its citizens and only the surplus should be
sold to the commodity markets abroad.
However, for the corporations, food security means
growing numbers, able to buy seed and food from the
commodity markets they control, which is what makes
it inaccessible to the poor.
Indeed, only northern consumers can afford goods from
these markets, which is why the biotech industry has
to persuade the resisting Europeans - through coercion
if necessary - that genetically engineered food will
feed the world. Thus transnational corporations would
begin to harvest unjust profits at the expense of local
The resistance must continue to grow, North and South,
in solidarity, in order to avoid the old tactic of divide